How to Be Intellectually Curious in Sales

If you want to develop your business acumen, your situational knowledge, and your ability to create value for your clients and your dream clients, you need to become intellectually curious. You have to seek to understand how things work, why people do things a certain way, why people want what they want, and when it makes sense to do something.

When I was young and first started selling, I developed the practice of asking my clients questions. At first, the questions I asked were direct, and my goal was not to understand, but rather to elicit the client’s dissatisfaction. The word we used to describe “what is keeping the customer up at night,” assuming they knew what should be keeping them up at night and that they were willing to share it with a salesperson who might be able to help). Later, after I became a better salesperson from having studied Neil Rackham’s work, my questions switched to what his model called “implication” questions. I started asking the question, “What happens if you don’t do something different?”

At some point, I realized that creating greater value for my clients meant learning more about their business. I started to ask a different set of questions designed to obtain a real understanding of how their business worked, how they thought about their business and the competitive landscape, and how I might be more helpful to them.

One of my clients was responsible for an enormous logistics operations. In a meeting I attended, the attendees from his management team continuously talked about “throughput.” I knew what the word meant, and I had some understanding of how what I sold would impact their throughput, but I wasn’t certain. So I asked my client to explain it to me, and then to share with me how I might impact that metric in a meaningful way. And then I asked five more clients to give me their views on the same metric, and in doing so, I became more valuable to my clients and my dream clients.

Ask How

It is valuable to know how different business models work. If you want to create value for the teams that manage and run businesses, you need to know how things work. You want to understand their overall strategy as a business, something you can quickly learn to discern by reading The Discipline of Market Leaders by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema. You can also learn a good bit by simply watching or listening to CNBC, especially in the morning, when they interview CEOs and business leaders.

To be intellectually curious, you have to want to know how things work. You can ask your client how they compete in their marketplace and what they believe differentiates them from their competitors. You can ask how they handle some process or execute something that provides you with a better understanding of what they think they need to do to be successful. You can even ask how they feel about some strategic or tactical decision they need to make for their business.

In exploratory or discovery calls, the depth and breadth of what you discover—and what you help the client discover about themselves—is going to be based on the level of questions you ask. Asking “What’s keeping you up at night” might still be a useful question, and you will have clients who want to share the answer and acquire some help solving those problems. However, that question doesn’t demonstrate a real interest in their business, nor does it indicate you have a deep enough understanding to be considered a future partner.

If you work selling to and serving businesses and the people that run them, you have to intellectually curious enough to understand business principles.

Ask Why

From time to time, you will be baffled by some of the things your clients and prospects do in pursuing some result. Sometimes you will see them doing something that doesn’t seem to make sense, only to find out is working well for them, giving you new insight as to how you might do something different or better. Other time you will see your dream client doing something so wrong that it’s difficult to believe. What you want to know is “why” they do what they do.

If you are going to be intellectually curious, you are going to have to ask why, without being judgmental. You will have clients who seem to be doing things in ways that make the outcome they need difficult for them, only to find out there is a good reason why they do things in a certain way. How you provide a solution that gains their commitment to work with you may very well depend on you knowing how to improve their results in a way that doesn’t disrupt something that needs to be done in a certain way.

But asking why often reveals areas where an improvement is available to your client because they don’t know there are better ways available to them. If you believe that salespeople are no longer necessary because their clients and prospects can research on the internet, likely, you don’t work in sales. The intellectually curious salesperson has the benefit of learning from clients and prospects, coupled with the experience of working with clients to know more about the nuances around decisions and solutions that exceed anything one might learn from researching company websites.

Taking care of your clients and prospects requires the curiosity to understand why certain things are done, sometimes this way, and other times another way. You need to know how to think about trade-offs, what this is better than that, and when it makes sense to do something.

What They Want

Success in sales in large part depends on effectively working with and for other people. Even though you are supposed to believe relationships no longer matter in sales, the truth of the matter is that matter more now than ever in a world being pulled in two directions (super-transactional and super-relational). It pays to be intellectually curious about what human beings want and why.

Let me give you an easy, sales-related example. I once heard a purchasing manager explain that his compensation was, in part, based on price savings over prior years. He wasn’t interested in cost savings if those savings weren’t visible as a reduction in price, as he was not compensated on the difficult to capture, but very real soft costs.

Some leaders invest in outcomes and will willingly pay more for things like speed to market, greater market share, innovative ideas that create a competitive advantage, or any number of things they want. If you’re going to be intellectually curious, you’ll ask them why they want what they want, why it’s important to them. There may not be anything more interesting or useful than understating human psychology and motivation, something worth learning to understand (as much as it can be).

If you want to be better in sales, a better sales manager, or more effective leader, and an all-around more successful person, being intellectually curious is as good a place to start as any.

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